Mel Ottenberg, the man behind the singer’s fantastic fashion, opens up about their tight relationship and creating custom looks.
In the intersecting spheres of fashion and music, who yields more influence than Rihanna? The 28-year-old singer, whose forward-thinking and fearless approach to style nabbed her the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Fashion Icon Award in 2014, has been known to move a brand’s entire inventory of $9,000 headphones with a single tweet.
What’s more, she’s launched the careers of half a dozen designers, including Adam Selman and the designer of her dramatic 2015 Met Gala look, Guo Pei, simply by wearing one of their dresses. It’s little wonder that brands from Dior to MAC Cosmetics to Puma have lined up to work with her and her stylist of five years, Mel Ottenberg.
Ottenberg, a longtime stylist and the fashion director of 032c magazine in Berlin, has been collaborating with Rihanna since her 2011 Loud Tour — but they met long before that. In a recent chat, Ottenberg, 40, told us how the pair kicked off their professional relationship, the story behind Rihanna’s four outstanding VMAs looks and how he satisfies the artist’s “ravenous appetite” for fashion.
How did you and Rihanna meet?
I met Rihanna a really long time ago. I did a shoot with her for Elle, and she was a young artist, and I really liked her. I remember running into her [years later] at a club, and when she came in, she was like, “Oh, my God, it was you,” and then we worked on this big performance in 2011.
Had you worked with an artist in that capacity before?
I’ve worked with a lot of celebrities, but just a shoot here and there, nothing like [what I’ve done with Rihanna] at all. I wanted to work with her because I knew that she had a lot of potential to do really great fashion stuff — you can tell she had fun with fashion and was fearless about it. I was doing some shoots with Kanye [West], and Willo [Perron] worked with Kanye at the time, and then he worked with Rihanna, so I said, “Get me in with her. I really want to work with her; we could do great stuff together.”
What is the most challenging aspect of dressing Rihanna?
The challenge with her is, she always wants to try something new, so I have to know what works, yet also try to push things forward because this girl has already worn a million amazing outfits. She has a ravenous appetite for fashion.
How do you find new things to show her?
It would be great if there were enough things to excite me [on the runways], but there definitely aren’t, or at least not enough that would be right for the job at hand, so I end up making a lot of things and doing a lot of research in libraries. I also work with people that I trust and that I think can really show me great new ideas too, like Hood by Air, Adam Selman, Vetements. Also I like to show her stuff, see what gets her excited. I want her to feel really great and confident and sexy and cool and wearing an awesome outfit. I don’t want the clothes to do too much, either. I want her to sing and feel great.
How much of what she wears is custom versus ready-to-wear?
It depends on what I’m doing. We just did VMAs, and I would say 70 percent of what she wore was custom.
How long did her VMAs looks take to put together?
I started getting them together in mid-July, which was really crazy because fashion is dead in August, so I felt I was really up against a lot of obstacles. I was seeing all of fashion go on vacation in Greece on my Instagram feed, and I was like, “F— these people, I am working my ass off.”
What’s your best Rihanna memory?
Seeing her go onstage to get her 2014 CFDA Fashion Icon Award in her crystal Adam Selman dress, sparkling onstage. The close second is all four performances at the VMAs the other night; that is hands-down my favorite performance moment with her.